Hey HF community! Meet Helios, my new Belgian draft x Thoroughbred gelding. He's 10 years old, somewhere between 16 and 16.3hh and currently a finished team roper turned underweight pasture puff.
Anyways, this journal is meant to document his progress as he gains weight and muscle, but more importantly to showcase our journey from roping horse to an english pleasure horse with basic dressage and maybe jumping low stuff. The reason I didn't post this in the training forum is because I also want to post lots of cute pictures and non-training-related stories.
So without any further ado, here's Leo!
This was his first day in his new home, which was yesterday.
I'm clearly very smitten. This was the second time I went out to visit him, in the process of paying him off:
When I bought him, his name was "Buddy". I finally settled on naming him after the Greek sun god, Helios. I was already dreaming about how his coat will look next summer.
Alright guys, I'm not going to lie - I'm an impulsive shopper. An emotional shopper. The "oh, he just needs love and time, I can give him lots of that!" kind of horse shopper...aka the kind of horse shopper who didn't get a PPE, and didn't even have a legit arena to try him in, and didn't bring a more knowledgeable horse person with me. That being said, I've lucked out so far. After a good roundpen sesh this afternoon, it's evident that his movement and brain are sound. The vet is coming out early next week for a pretty much moot PPE (Post-purchase exam? Haha. Because ****, at this point there's no way I'm returning this horse, he can remain a pasture puff and be loved on for the rest of his life if need be), as well as floating his teeth. Chiro and farrier will also be out next week.
We already have some issues to work through, but so far he hasn't been dangerous or mean or done anything to cause me worry. The route from his paddock to the arena & round pen involves a DEATHLY MUDDY STREAM OF TERROR that he must walk through or step over (maybe only 3ft across), or an 8 foot LOUD CLONKING BRIDGE OF DOOM that he can walk over instead. Before you ask, yes it's solid and can suppot a horse's weight. I decided to start with the bridge, figuring it was less likely he'd turn a foot than in the deep clay around the steam.
The Bridge Discussion
The first time we approached the bridge, he was wary but trusted me. He only hesitated for a moment, then followed me with a big snort, quick clatter and a leap - he wasn't comfortable, but he certainly wasn't misbehaving. Then I thought to myself, "Well, that wasn't calm, and I always hear of people crossing things over and over until their horse doesn't even bat an eye." (Disclaimer: obviously I'm not a trainer and lack such necessary experience to have my own expert opinion and tried-and-true methods). So back over we went, with pretty much the same result. He followed me willingly enough, but was still nervous and crossed waaaayyyyy too fast with way too much airtime.
So I turned him back to the bridge - note, turned away from home as well - and his feet were either attached to the ground or motoring backwards if I applied forward pressure. There was NO WAY he was going near it. Then I remembered a pretty well-used method of making backing up something he has to do, and for way more steps than he wants; not so desirable any more, hey Leo? So I tried that for a few minutes then, shame on me, got frustrated and stopped that method. He was getting more and more reactive, and instead of enjoying the break of moving forward, he'd take a few steps forward but as we neared the bridge he'd get increasingly tense as usual - but then he'd also anticipate the request to back up and would start to rocket backwards from further and further distances from the bridge. No good, and I was getting a little shaken.
Bridge Take Two
Okay, so the backing up method didn't work becase a) I wasn't doing it correcly, or b) it just wasn't a suitable method. I don't know which, but I gave up regardless, and I'm not saying I should have. One thing I'm really proud of, however, is my rational mind. Instead of getting mad like some riders may, I let us both stop and breathe for a second while I thought about what else I could try. Getting mad and irrational NEVER bodes well, friends.
Next, I walked him in circles that passed right next to the bridge, as well as asking him to move his hindquarters away from me in front of the bridge, and lots of stop/go work on a loose lead so he'd be paying attention and responding promptly. Pretty soon I could dive side to side, quickly change direction, stop, and back up, and he'd move in sync with me on a totally slack lead. This is a dance that every person should be able to achieve with their horse quite readily with proper handling; that said, I was still impressed with how quickly he picked it up and calmed down, given the situation. It took less than 5 minutes.
So we headed back to the bridge with a whole knew outlook and, and an idea of what I was going to do in my mind. Instead of standing at the foot of the bridge with him, I took a few steps ahead so I was in the middle, with an open posture (not facing directly towards or away from him), with a big handful of grass. The first couple times I asked him to step towards me, I was met with the same backwards zoom and high head. But instead of chasing him, I stood still and let him take those steps with a slack lead line. This REALLY confused him, which I recognize as my fault since I'd led him to expect me to chase him backwards and hadn't been consistent with it. But, lucky for me, it confused him in a good way! After three or four big steps, he'd stop and watch me, confused but curious, waiting for a reaction. All I did was stand there and gently ask him to walk forward again. First, I'd ask for his forehooves to be at base of the bridge for a bit of grass and release of pressure (when previously he'd be two or three steps away and he'd react violently). Then, one front hoof on the wood. Then the other. Every time he backed up I let him but didn't move from my position in the middle of the bridge, and just quietly asked him to move forward again once he stopped. Soon he wasn't as determined to get away from the bridge, because his only option was to come back calmly and do what I ask. Plus, what horse doesn't want a tasty nibble of grass for doing something as easy as stepping on some noisy wood?! We got to the point where he'd calmly have all four hooves on the bridge. This is when I decided to stop for the day, since we were on a really good note. He was no longer backing up more than a step or two, and would always come right back (a couple times without pressure on the lead rope, just clucking with my tongue!!!!) I'm aware that many people would have pushed through until he crossed the bridge completely, but a bunch of horses from the pasture decided to come galloping over; it was a big distraction as well as dangerous since they all wanted to push their way across the bridge too and it's only wide enough for one horse and person. Luckily I'd already finished for the day and we'd moved away from the bridge, but he definitely got antsy again when the other horses came bombing over. HOPEFULLY, though, seeing them all cross the bridge with total confidence will be a positive reinforcer for him that it's safe. Back at it tomorrow!
Problemo Numero Dos: But this paddock is better!
Back to the paddock we go! Oh wait..maybe not. The setup of this boarding facility is a little weird, as we have to go through two other horse-filled enclosures travelling from Leo to arena and vice versa. This setup isn't for long though, as he'll be released into the main pasture with the other horses in a couple weeks. He got to know the 3 horses in his adjoining paddock well enough overnight, I guess. But well enough that he wouldn't want to return to his own? Ouch. Every time we neared his paddock gate, he'd do the same thing he did initially with the bridge - feet planted, with more forward pressure causing him to violently back up. At this point I'm **** near in tears because I KNOW he's just being stubborn and he figures he can push me around. After making us both dizzy by chasing his haunches in circles involving a couple good whacks with the lead rope, I tried again and he was fine. Walked right in. Yay? Guess so!
And Three: Still Being Silly About His Buddies
After a couple hours of letting him chill out in his paddock, I took him to the round pen. Again, we had a little discussion about leaving his buddies' paddock (but in the other direction this time! And I know he's not scared of the gate into his paddock because he steps through just fine when he's going INTO the other horses' paddock. In case this is getting a little confusing, it goes Leo's paddock -> gate -> 3 horse paddock -> gate -> big pasture -> gate to arena and roundpen. So, the first time he refused going back home, it was 3 horse paddock -> gate -> Leo's paddock. The second time, he refused at 3 horse paddock -> gate -> big pasture. This time it went more quickly and soon we were on our way to the arena with a big sigh of relief from me.
Stream Not So Scary?
We did much better with the stream; a couple seconds, a slack lead and me on the other side of the stream was enough for a giant leap over the water. Whatever, not going to try and make him go back over right away like I did with the bridge! Big pat and we keep walking up hill to the arena without pause. Yay!
Round Pen Success
Finally, something that went exactly as I'd hoped. I free lunged Leo in the round pen w/t/c, direction change, whoa. Just the basics, but he was brilliant! He was very responsive, very willing to work (didn't pin his ears once!!), but also willing to "whoa". He was a little confused about direction changes but it only took once in each direction for him to figure it out and do it smoothly. He tried to cut in front of me a couple times and keep going in his current direction, but luckily I was quick and assertive enough that I could get in front of him and use my big voice and flappy arms, so he didn't get away with it. It's amazing what a bit of confidence can do! It's so nice to finally have it, and not back away from a horse or get shaken in situations like that. So overall, that was a great success and we both finished with a new understanding and appreciation for each other.
Back over the stream he was fine, a big jump again but he wasn't nervous about it like last time. I gave him lots of room on the lead, he chose a spot with footing he deemed safe, and just like that he jumped over and stopped beside me.
I had some more trouble getting him back into his paddock, but I didn't feel like fighting more so I tied him up outside the paddock, tossed a flake of hay in it for him (making sure he saw), then untied him and led him in without any problems.
I think that pretty much sums up our day, other than the boring stuff (hand grazing and a long brush). A couple more pictures before I go! This is the property from near the arena. You can see the stream, as well as the paddocks. Leo is in the paddock where the black horse is, so you can see what I mean about having to go through the other one (currently empty, gate open). And the second picture is just another view of the big pasture, if you were to walk down the hill a bit and turn 90 degrees to your right. The bridge is hidden by the trees, but it's at the bottom of the hill there.
Hope at least one person made it through the entire post, but if not, I'm glad I wrote it anyways! Sometimes analyzing your day in detail and being honest to yourself about what was done correctly and not so correctly is really helpful for planning your sessions ahead. Thanks for reading, and check back soon!
The day I knew I was in love: